Back in the 1980s, Samella Lewis's Art: African American was a fundamental textbook for fledgling art historians desperate for information about artists who were not white, male and dead. So it is a treat to see work by Elizabeth Catlett from Lewis' own private collection displayed at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The late Catlett even had a history with Pittsburgh: Despite winning a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in the 1930s, she was denied enrollment because of her race. (Carnegie Mellon University finally honored her with a Doctorate of Fine Arts, in 2008.)
The Art of Elizabeth Catlett from the Collection of Samella Lewis, which includes both sculptures and prints, is co-curated by Lewis and the Center's Cecile Shellman. Catlett, the granddaughter of slaves, used her work to address issues of social justice and self-determination. She was inspired by her experiences as an African-American woman, but also by artistic sources including African and pre-Columbian art, and the work of artists such as Henry Moore, Grant Wood, Diego Rivera and Mexican graphic-arts collective Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), which she joined in 1946.
Catlett's style ranges from figuration and portraiture to abstraction. But like other TGP artists, much of her work accessibly blends art, social commentary and activism. Such portrayals as "Survivor" and "Sharecropper" demonstrate how her strong graphic style underscores the dignity of everyday working people, particularly women.
Many of Catlett's works were overtly political. In "The Torture of Mothers," Catlett depicts the emotional devastation caused by the war on young black men, a subject as relevant today as it was when the piece was first printed in 1970. The exhibition balances Catlett's graphic work with a few of her dynamic sculptures, from the more realistic "Mother and Child" to the more abstract "Maternity."
While Catlett's work speaks for itself, the exhibition is a bit uneven. The installation is eccentric and there are very few didactic panels. The addition of work by Lewis and Catlett's husband, Francisco Mora, seem like filler. While there is a large catalogue available in the gallery, the exhibition could have been enhanced by signage providing further insight into the relationship between Lewis and Catlett and between Lewis and each of the works on display.